Friday, 4 February 2011

Do you come from a land downunder?

No, not that one, the other one. New Zealand, whose Maori name, Aotearoa, translates to “land of the long white cloud” is famous for a few things: having more sheep than people, having one of the most feared rubgy union sides in the world and being home to more flightless birds than any other country. OK, we may have made one of those up, but they do have quite a few flightless birds, including their national symbol, the kiwi, and the endangered kakapo, the world's largest parrot.

The All Blacks have long made a big impression on the rugby pitch with their haka, the ritual Maori dance that involves rhythmical chanting along with thigh slapping, eye-rolling and tongue-poking – and we only have God Save the Queen. No wonder they run our guys ragged.

Nowadays New Zealand is spreading its wings (excuse the pun) beyond the world of flightless birds and rugby and adding wine to its list of famous exports. Sauvignon blanc has been the Kiwi calling card of the past decade and it has truly struck a chord with the UK's wine gluggers.

However, no-one wants to be a one-trick pony and New Zealand's wine producers know that today's Top of the Pops white can rapidly go the way of Liebfraumilch and Lutomer Laski Riesling, which today you would only encounter in a strictly ironic way at a Seventies party, along with the prawn cocktail and steak Diane, washed down with a Demis Roussos LP. The Kiwis do not intend to be consigned to merely providing the alcoholic accompaniment to Noughties parties, along with a Jamie Oliver pukka pasta dish and Lady Gaga or JLS on the ipod.

So while we've been busy slugging back the sauvignon, they have been beavering away, planting new varieties, experimenting with growing techniques and exploring which of their variations of climate and soils best suits each one.

Pinot noir has triumphantly emerged as THE red grape best suited to this cool climate land – which is great news for any wine producing country, as pinot noir is notoriously picky about where it will grow. Too hot and it turns fat and blowsy, with nothing to recommend it. Too cool, though, and it will fail to ripen, succumb to rot and generally be economically non-viable. New Zealand, though, is clearly the Goldilocks country – it's just right.

And why all the fuss about a grape variety? Well, once you've been bitten by the pinot bug, you appreciate that no other grape is the same. It's light in colour, with soft tannins and fresh, crisp acidity. The fragrant cherry, raspberry and strawberry fruit, often combined with a subtle lick of spicy oak is charming, beguiling and the opposite to a blow-your-socks-off blockbuster red. It combines elegance with understated power – a ballerina rather than a prop forward.

Decades ago, there was no choice but to head to Burgundy to indulge your pinot habit – and at Burgundy prices it can be an expensive one. Now, you can look to places like Leyda Valley in Chile, Walker Bay in the Indian Ocean-cooled far south of South Africa, isolated cool pockets like the Mornington Peninsula in Australia – and to New Zealand.

Because New Zealand is two long islands, with climates ranging from warm enough to ripen syrah in the north of the North Island, to cold enough for penguins and icebergs in the far south of the South Island, there are many places in between that provide happy sites for the pinot grape, producing different styles of wine.

Some notable New Zealand pinots from north to south:

The Society's Exhibition Martinborough Pinot Noir 2008, £12.95, The Wine Society
Martinborough lies at the bottom end of the North Island, just across the narrow straits that separate it from the cooler South Island. Pinots here are typically more masculine, deeper in colour, with more tannin and spice than Marlborough – but it's all relative and you could never mistake this for a shiraz, with its red fruit and silky feeling in the mouth.

Ata Rangi Crimson Pinot Noir 2008, £15.99 The Vineyard, Dorking
Ata Rangi were pioneers of pinot and their years of experience show in this fragrant delight, which somehow has depth without weight.

Craggy Range Te Muna Road Pinot Noir 2008, £19.99, Taurus Wines, Bramley
Another Martinborough pinot! This wine is so silkily and spicily seductive that it was one of our favourites at last year's Taurus wine festival.

The Crossings Marlborough Pinot Noir 2009, £9.75, The Wine Society
Finally we cross to the South Island. This is so light in colour, you could mistake it for a deep rosé, but it has bags of bright cherry fruit and soft tannins which are typical of Marlborough pinots. It would be a treat chilled down once the weather warms up.

Wild Earth Central Otago Pinot Noir 2008, £22.99, down to £20 as part of a case, The Vineking (Church Street Reigate branch), £119.94 for a case of 6 from M&S, £234 for a case of 12 from Tesco Wine by the Case
Central Otago is the world's most southerly wine region – any further south and you swap vines for glaciers and fjords – and makes some of the most delicate, perfumed pinot around. There is plenty of charming cherry and raspberry fruit in Wild Earth, with a pleasing, meaty note on the finish.

Felton Road Central Otago Pinot Noir 2008, £24.99 from The Vineyard, Dorking, £32.49 from Les Caves de Pyrene, Guildford
Biodynamic winery Felton Road has something of a cult following – let its haunting, ethereal charms win you over.

Next time we'll unveil the white wines that New Zealand is counting on to score a hit with UK wine drinkers – until then pop-pickers, we suggest you seek out one of those pinot noirs to keep your spirits up.

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